Naive online daters turn into today’s drug mules
One day, Sharon’s and Catherine’s online dates, called “Frank” and “Marc,” asked them to finally meet in person, but not before one last favor: going to Argentina to pick up some sensitive documents.
The two women eventually agreed, thinking their dream had finally come true.
However, the documents, hidden in a secret compartment of their luggage, turned out instead to be cocaine.
That’s how Sharon Mae Armstrong, 55, former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission from New Zealand, and Catherine Blackhawk, 49, an American nurse, suddenly and unknowingly became the final links in a drug trafficking chain.
Astonished, they ended up behind bars in the same federal prison on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, in April and June 2011, respectively.
Their cases reveal that dating deceits — which rose by 150 percent in 2011 alone, fraud protection agency Iovation reveals — are moving beyond the simple take-the-money-and-run scheme.
“Cartels are looking for people who clearly can’t focus properly to realize what kind of business they have been thrown into,” Claudio Izaguirre, president of the Argentine Anti-Drugs Association, told Metro.
“People like Sharon are thrown into the fray with a luggage where the cocaine is easily detectable; she is just a decoy, a scapegoat. The real mules are behind her, managing to get through while the attention falls on her,” he added.
In January of this year, a third person fell into the same cyber-trap and got caught at Buenos Aires airport: Paul Howard Frampton, 69, a distinguished professor of physics and astronomy based at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Frampton has said he was lured into meeting a woman he thought he had been chatting with on the Internet, Czech-born lingerie model Denise Milani. He was given luggage to carry by someone claiming to be Milani’s intermediary; the case had 2 kilograms of cocaine inside.
Just like Armstrong and Blackhawk, Frampton was perceived to be vulnerable and financially secure.
Julieta Lacroze, Sharon’s lawyer from Buenos Aires-based law firm Estudio Durrieu, believes they are just the tip of an iceberg, but admits it is hard to find exact figures on the dating scam trend.
“It is easy for criminal organizations — they just have to sit down and chat,” she said. “Three months of work via the Internet, and that’s it. For 5 kilos of cocaine, it’s a fairly good deal.”
Normally, dating website rip-offs tend to go unreported due to victims feeling embarrassed or humiliated.
The unwitting drug mules detained in Argentina now fight a battle behind bars to raise awareness about their plight.
Drug smuggling 2.0
A well-educated Western professional feeling lonely and looking for a mate on a dating website: That’s the perfect profile for the next-generation drug mule. Watch out: That seductive, sweet-talking cyber-mate might in fact just turn out to be a cover for a drug cartel in need of smugglers who are beyond suspicion.
How to dig your own grave
Being a professional cyber-love scammer requires an outrageously creative brain. Investigators believe that the organization that tricked Sharon used her own money to pay for the whole operation: In more than four months of a virtual relationship with “Frank,” Sharon agreed to send him $20,000 in different installments via Western Union.
“Every time, he had a different excuse,” her lawyer, Lacroze, pointed out.
“Who in Argentina would ever accept to send this much money to a stranger? No one.”
Nigerian and Russian criminal organizations are infamous to experts and drug enforcement agencies around the world. Websites like Romancescam.com are dedicated to raising awareness over the issue and help people detect their scammers before it becomes too late.